Sunday, May 31, 2009

Make Me

photo: Doug Hamilton

The biggest problem with Leslie Ayvazian's comedy about S&M, which is that it isn't funny, might have been mitigated if it was sexy. But as written and directed (by Christian Parker) it has no heat: this is a play in which three couples in long-term relationships play sado-masochistic bedroom games but you don't have any idea why because nobody has any fun. It's as if the playwright thinks of these roleplaying games between consenting adults as the joyless rituals of the bored, and almost nothing in the play acknowledges that anyone is turned on sexually by them. It's written and performed (by an expert cast that you're embarrassed for which includes Jessica Hecht and Candy Buckley) as if there's a wagging finger hanging over the stage.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Pure Confidence

photo: Ann Marsden

The story, about an industrious slave in the pre-Civil War South whose talent as a horse jockey seems to offer him a path to freedom, might have made for a dry docudrama of the "theatre that is good for you" variety. But instead the play, written by Carlyle Brown, is lively and absorbing and the production, with an exceptional cast directed by Marion McClinton who is best known for staging August Wilson, is a crowd-pleaser. We get caught up immediately in the relationship between Simon (Gavin Lawrence) and his slaveholder (Chris Mulkey) - the two seem to have a disarming respect for each other borne of each seeing opportunity in the other. When slave outwits slaveholder in one of the play's earliest scenes, it's taken in the spirit of sportsmanship, and we get a kick out of Simon, emboldened by the value of his talent, daring to buck the social norms of the times. The play's more comical first act, which is largely defined by Simon's ambitious, aggressive personality, gives way to a more serious second act in which Simon's wife Caroline (Christiana Clark) takes our dramatic focus. While it captures a specific, uniquely challenging and infrequently dramatized time in African American history, the play ponders some of the ironies of what was considered "freedom".

Friday, May 29, 2009

9 to 5: The Musical

Photo: Craig Schwartz

Dolly Parton's lyrics don't rhyme. Alison Janney can't sing. The overly-electronic sound eliminates any sense of actual humans playing instruments in the pit. The book is uneven, dated, and frequently dumb. Lisa Howard, Ann Harada, and Maia Nkenge Wilson are sinfully underutilized. There are moments that are downright embarrassing.

I had a great time.

Dolly Parton's score bounces along with energy and humor. Alison Janney can act and dance and is incredibly likeable. Megan Hilty combines great timing, a wonderful voice, and star power as she both imitates Dolly Parton and somehow manages to play a real person (Hilty should have gotten the Tony nom, rather than Janney). Stephanie Block's evolution from blushing and fearful to brave and happy is beautifully calibrated, and she sings the hell out of the 11:00 number, "Get Out and Stay Out." The book has some very funny moments, and its message of girl-bonding and humanity in the workplace touched me despite the flimsiness of the show, probably because Janney, Hilty, and Block give their characters full human dimensions. Marc Kudish is great fun, and his ability to flex one pec at a time is certainly unique! (Do you suppose he mentions it on his resume?) The choreography is energetic and entertaining, and it was great to see so many people on stage.

9 to 5 is a B- musical that manages to deliver an A- level of entertainment.

10 Things To Do Before I Die

Reviewed for Theatermania.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Our Lady of South Division Street

In Our Lady of South Division Street, the Nowaks are just another family in Buffalo, NY, except for one little detail--years ago, the Virgin Mary appeared to one of their relatives. This funny and moving story of a revelation that forces the Nowaks to reconsider both their history and their identity, is currently playing in an excellent production, nicely directed by Joe Brancato, at the Penguin Rep in Stony Point, north of New York City. It was written by Tom Dudzick (who, full disclosure, is my brother-in-law) and it addresses his favorite themes of belief, miracles, and family in a very enjoyable couple of hours. The cast, led by Peggy Cosgrove as the mother, does a fine job, and Joseph Egan's set is wonderful.

Vieux Carre

Photo: Gregory Costanzo

Tennessee Williams wrote Vieux Carre both early and late in his career. He started it in the late 30s and went back to it in the late 70s. Based on his time spent in a rundown boarding house in New Orleans, Vieux Carre can be viewed as a sort of The Glass Menagerie 2: What Happened After Tom Left St. Louis. In many ways, it is vintage Williams: full of aching loneliness, emotional scars, and the hope/prayer that connecting with another person--particularly sexually--can heal both psychological and physical damage. The Williams stand in--known as the Writer--is young, yearning, and not quite in touch with his homosexuality. He has left his family behind and wants no new parents; his life is his now, however it may turn out. At the boarding house, he gets to know a variety of fragile people: an artist with TB, an upper class woman who both loves and hates her lower class boyfriend, a pair of elderly women slowly starving to death, and a landlady whose nastiness and neediness have blended into one large mass of jagged emotion. In some ways more a series of character studies than a plotted play, Vieux Carre is a clear-eyed yet loving look at the people who fall into life's cracks. The reliable Pearl Theatre is offering an excellent, if flawed, production of the play, directed by Austin Pendleton. The idea of having one bed stand in for everyone's bed is awkward and confusing, and the use of the aisles of the theatre for exits and entrances is jarring. But the performances are excellent; Sean McNall, Rachel Botchan, Carol Schultz, and George Morfogen are particularly moving. Two other points: (1) It's a pity that the play was written in a time when Williams could thoughtlessly give an actual story to everyone except the "Negro maid," who ends up being more of a prop than a person (although Claudia Robinson gives the character dimension through the excellence of her performance); and (2) a number of reviews have referred to the artist, an older man who seduces the Writer, as "predatory" and even "aggressively homosexual." I think that these are misreadings of the character, who is a gentle man who wants desperately to connect with another person and who is offering the Writer all he has to offer. The Writer is an adult, able to say no, and while he accepts the artist's overtures ambivalently, he does accept them and perhaps is the better for it.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Ore, or Or


Duncan Pflaster's tale is essentially a classic love triangle, with the beefy Calvin Kanayama (E. Calvin Ahn) at the apex. He seems to love his new girlfriend, down-to-earth Debbie (Elizabeth Erwin), but lusts after the lithe and forward Tara (Clara Barton Green). Along the way he bonds with Sean (Shawn McLaughlin), Debbie's gay roommate, who, through no fault of his own, suffers from knowing more than he wants to about his friends' love lives. In creating a supportive and single "gay best friend," Mr. Pflaster flirts with cultural stereotype, but comes out pure, as Sean flowers into the most likable and vivid character of all. The action skips deftly through one seriocomic situation after another, as the mostly solid cast has fun with video games, food poisoning, Star Trek, and Sean's adventures as a substitute teacher. Periodically, a gong and some evocative shakuhachi music divert us into one of Calvin's dreams, inspired by the legends of Yamashita's treasure. This sub-theme is an appealing, ornate framing device, though perhaps not totally necessary, as the imperfect, realistically rough-edged New Yorkers living their laughing, heartbreaking lives in front of us are intriguing enough by their plain selves.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Squiggy and the Goldfish


Photo: Elisha Schaefer

A brave, sharp performance by Josh Breslow as the title character (Squiggy, not the fish) can't make up for this play's weakness of focus. Abuse at the hands of his suicidal father has made Squiggy a cutter of long standing, though he's successfully hidden his scars from his ineffective, half-unmoored mother (Dana Aber). Terrorized by his cruel fiancée Veronica (the excellent Katrina Ylimaki) and her violent father (Jonathan Miles), Squiggy gets no relief even in his dreams, where a horror-movie psychiatrist and a nightstick-happy cop chase him through paranoid fantasies. As the realities of Squiggy's past and present tribulations (and those of the women in his life) are revealed to us, the characters stimulate aches of recognition, but the effect is too often subverted by Recovery Movement catchphrases, characters stating the obvious to one another, and narrative inconsistencies. Mr. Breslow does absolutely all he can to keep the play centered, but he can do only so much.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

photo: Joan Marcus

With more than a little bad-ass nose-thumbing attitude, this show at The Public (seen here staged and costumed but billed as a "concert version") about Andrew Jackson pokes some snarky fun at rock musicals (the anachronisms of Spring Awakening, for instance) but beneath the snotty 'tude are some provocative ideas about Jackson's legacy. Was the fourth President a hero or an American Hitler? Was the populism he preached a recipe for pure democracy or for chaos? The show, which has an unpretentious rag-tag looseness, isn't out to make a definitive statement and it steadfastly refuses to get too serious until the very end, but that's part of its refreshing appeal. As staged by Alex Timbers, it's silly and smartypants at the same time. The show's conceit has Jackson in strutting rock god drag which not only amusingly illustrates his celebrity and resonance with the people but also allows Benjamin Walker to rock out old school in his thoroughly winning breakout performance.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Le Serpent Rouge


Photo: Steven Schreiber

Austin McCormick's Company XIV is back with another extravagant, sexually charged dance-theater piece of the kind only they can produce. Where last year's Judgment of Paris drew on the young choreographer's study of French baroque dance (pre-classical ballet), the dancing in Le Serpent Rouge is more modern; but again the company creates a visionary re-imagining of a classic story, this time the legend of Adam, Eve, and Lilith. Swings, a giant chandelier hung low to the ground, a focused rain of water, a huge mirror (for Eve to lose herself in), light bondage, near-nudity, and the world's first threesome are only a few elements of this luridly opulent production. The choreography is continually expressive and beautifully realized by the amazing dancers. It's a richly woven, thoroughly rewarding entertainment.

Read the whole review.

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Philanthropist

photo: Joan Marcus

The main character in Christopher Hamtopn's bone-dry comedy of manners is the bookish sort who is alienated from most people and who comes most alive playing with anagrams - in order words, he's British and dated by about four decades. As played by Matthew Broderick, miscast and struggling to convince as a Bit, he practically vanishes into thin air on stage, especially during the more static scenes (directed by David Grindley) where it is essential that we feel some gravity from the actors. Another American, Steven Weber, fares better in Anglo mode, but it's an uphill battle when one can see bona fide Brits in The Norman Conquests just a few blocks north.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Mare Cognitum


Photo: Elisha Schaefer

Mare Cognitum follows three twenty-somethings reliving the wide-eyed excitement of intellectual discovery they experienced in college. Or rather, that's what the playwright himself, David McGee, seems to be indulging in. Not enough happens; the characters' exchange of ideas can't carry 90 minutes of drama. When something does occur -- notably, one character's spiritual awakening, and at the end, a half-real trip to the Moon -- the production springs to life. Lena's (Devon Caraway) description of her church visit is a fine piece of writing, and Ms. Caraway brings it home brilliantly. It's one of the periods of focus that represent the promise of the play, which, tightened up, could be a powerful piece of theater.

Read the full review.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Temperamentals

photo: Michael Portainiere/

Jon Marans' play is unfocused: it attempts to be both a history lesson about the gay activism of the Mattichine Society in the early 1950's and a bittersweet love story about the group's founders, Harry Hay and Rudi Gernreich. As a result it shortchanges both: we watch events unfold as in a history play that haven't been shaped for thematic impact. We lose touch with the activism - apart from affording the opportunity for get-togethers for some "temperamenatals" (a code word from the era for "homosexuals") the play doesn't illuminate the Mattichine Society; there's also a lack of dramatic urgency due to the absence of any strong enemy of gay rights in the play. The love story between the two men is too vaguely rendered to convince: despite the efforts of Thomas Jay Ryan as Hay and Ugly Betty's Michael Urie as Gernreich, the men essentially have halos stuck over their heads.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Go-Go Killers!


Go-Go Killers! is meant to evoke a number of B-movie genres, especially girl-gang flicks and those manic movies that featured go-go boots and hot pants -- all-American MST3K fare, in other words. Importing pop-culture genres to the stage and making creative use of them can produce spectacular theater, as Soul Samurai proved a few months back. But in this case, evoking is as much as the play can manage. Interspersing clumsy, overlong scenes with less-than-crackerjack go-go-inspired dance numbers does not automatically create a re-imagining, an homage, or even a parody. Here the setting is a post-global-warming New York, where rival girl gangs compete to murder the rich men who are enslaving their sisters. Sounds promising, in a trashy sort of way, right? But director Rachel Klein, who did better work with another genre piece last year, seems to have no idea what to do with Sean Gill's awkwardly constructed script. Go-Go Killers! boasts some good dancers and nifty costumes, but little else.

The Weirdness of Writing Reviews

A brief essay over at The Write Bunch.

Our Town

The production of Thornton Wilder's Our Town directed by David Cromer at the Barrow Street Theatre seems predicated on the theory that slowness equals significance. The play, a plea and a reminder to live mindfully, aggregates quotidian moments into a tribute to the beauty of being. In this production, however, the ponderous direction focuses too heavily on each individual moment, not allowing the gradual accumulation of meaning to creep up on the viewer. There is, however, one incredibly lovely, evocative moment when a curtain is pulled and suddenly we are given the experience of a life bursting into color and emotion.

The Singing Forest

Photo: Carol Rosegg

Is it possible to combine mistaken identities, accidental murders, jealous lovers, two different time periods, slamming doors, Freud, Starbucks, a psychiatrist ex machina, the Holocaust, rape, and reconciliation into one coherent, moving, comic drama? Maybe not, but in The Singing Forest, Craig Lucas comes close, with moments of brilliance and heartbreak along the way. Loe Rieman (the amazing Olympia Dukakis), severely damaged by the loss of her brother in the Holocaust and the seeming betrayal of her children decades later, has deliberately isolated herself from the world. Yet part of her still needs and wants to connect. A phone sex/therapy line, memories/hallucinations, and more coincidences than in a Dickens novel bring her face to face with her life, past and present, and help her achieve a measure of peace. Lucas's juxtaposition of farce and grim reality veers from starkly effective to uncomfortable and back again, and the varied plot lines achieve varied levels of success. Overall, Lucas has written a piece that is both messy and dazzling, impressive in its ambition even when it falls short. Beautifully directed by Mark Wing-Davey, with an excellent cast including Mark Blum, Jonathan Groff (whose ability to cry onstage is on a par with Bernadette Peters' and Alice Ripley's), and Susan Pourfar.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Norman Conquests

photo: Richard Termine

Seeing any one of the standalone plays in Alyn Ayckbourn's trilogy makes for a tasty snack; it takes seeing two to make a meal and all three a full feast. Each of the three plays depicts the same six characters during the same weekend in a different part of an English country house yet there's hardly any feeling of repetition, maybe because the comedy comes much less from situations than from observation of character. The plays' events are simple - an aborted weekend tryst between Norman (Stephen Mangan) and Annie (Jessica Hynes) becomes everybody's business - but the humor is sophisticated and, despite plenty of farcical hilarity, it's anything but trivial. The six performers in the cast, under Matthew Warchus' pitch-perfect direction, are each in touch with the vulnerability of Aykborn's comic characters. I suppose that anything is possible, but I really don't see how a production of these plays could be any better.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Way to Heaven


See enough Holocaust plays, and inevitably, one grows at least a little inured to the scenes of violence (sad as that may be). That's why Juan Mayorga's Way To Heaven makes for such an effective show: instead of showing the actual atrocities, it shows only the artificial atmosphere of the Theresienstadt concentration camp, at which Jews were forced to pretend that they had been happily resettled so that the Germans could quell the worldwide "rumors" of mass extermination. The audience, cast at the wide, parallel ends of the set--a narrow strip of dead leaves--sits on with the burden of hindsight, much like the Red Cross Representative (Shawn Parr), whose opening monologue establishes the tone of the show: "I needed one of them to give me a signal," he says. In other words, we watch Way to Heaven with the horror of knowledge, not the bliss of ignorance.

[Read on]

The Merchant Of Venice

photo: Nobby Clark

This all-male co-production between Propeller and Watermill Theater (at BAM) re-sets the action of Shakespeare's play to a prison, a choice that does more for the play's second act than for its first. There are as many fresh, inventive ideas as in Propeller's brilliant The Taming Of The Shrew, seen a couple of seasons ago, but here one would need to already be well-acquainted with traditional presentations of the play to be engaged: the production's prison conceit makes a muddle of most of the play's secondary action. The production's interpretation of the main conflict - the bargain between Shylock, the Jewish moneylender who demands interest on his loans, and Antonio, the Christian businessman who does not - is uncomfortable in its choice to keep Shylock from our sympathies: for instance his appeal to the courts and to the anti-Semitic crowd that his people bleed like any other seems here less an emotional appeal for humanity than cold lawyerly argument.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Joe Turner's Come And Gone

photo: T. Charles Erickson

August Wilson's most lyrical drama of the ten in his "Century Cycle" has been given an enthralling, first-rate revival (by Lincoln Center Theatre) that is at once intimate and operatic. The play, set in a Pittsburgh boarding house in 1911, captures a time of transience in African-American history during which lives were routinely uprooted by choice or by force. The production (directed by Bartlett Sher) emphasizes the overarching religious themes in the play but not at the expense of detailing Wilson's finely drawn characters. here brought to life by a near-flawless ensemble who deliver Wilson's heightened oft-poetic language with conversational ease. Theatergoers who didn't venture to the superb Wilson season at Signature a couple of years ago and who know the playwright only from the last few Broadway productions of his plays are especially urged to see this top-notch production of what is arguably his finest, most meticulously crafted play.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Some Thoughts on the Tony Nominations

Angela Lansbury
Photo: Robert J. Saferstein

This year's Tony nominations make one thing perfectly clear: it was a strong year for Broadway, particularly for play revivals, and it could have been even stronger (e.g., if Desire Under the Elms was actually good, if All My Sons had been directed by someone who respected the play, if Hedda Gabler had been cast with people remotely appropriate for their roles). I, like many other people, was surprised that Bill Irwin and John Goodman were not nominated for Waiting for Godot, but it was a competitive year for actors in plays, and it's wonderful news that John Glover was nominated. And I was astonished that the Godot set did not get a nom--I certainly would have chosen it over the sets for Exit the King and The Norman Conquests. Perhaps the biggest disappointment is the lack of a nom for Carey Mulligan, who was the only Seagull Nina I've ever seen make sense of the role. I have to wonder if James Barbour (Tale of Two Cities) would have been nominated instead of Constantine Maroulis (Rock of Ages) if he hadn't served jail time for "endangering the welfare of a minor," but perhaps not. And while I am glad that Ruined didn't come to Broadway--it belongs in a small theatre--it's too bad that it's not eligible for the Best Play Tony it surely would have won. I have a sense of what predictions I'll make among friends the day of the Tonys, but being a coward (and not having seen all the nominees), I'm only putting one prediction in print: Angela Lansbury will win for Featured Actress in Play.

Mary Stuart

Photo: Alastair Muir

Sometimes a play disappoints because it's just not the play you want it to be. My interest in seeing Friedrich Schiller's Mary Stuart (in a new version by Peter Oswald) was simple: I wanted to see the face-off between Mary and Elizabeth, as well as the face-off between the actors playing them, Janet McTeer and Harriet Walter. And when it came, both pairs of women were all that I could hope: strong, smart, passionate, willful, fascinating. And then, mere minutes after it began, the face-off ended. And that was their whole interaction--much, much too short. (A friend pointed out that since they never met in real life, it was really much, much too long, but one of the beauties of theatre is getting to see things that never happened.) In the women's scenes with other people, Walter was sly, manipulative, and powerful, and McTeer chewed the scenery. Much of the rest of the play--too much--consisted of about a day and a half of exposition, followed by a lot of men in anachronistic suits plotting and planning and manipulating and fighting and yelling and conniving--well, you get the point. Much of the acting was excellent (Brian Murray, John Benjamin Hickey, and Chandler Williams in particular) and there was one great special effect, but I would have preferred the show be half as long and completely focused on the queens.

Everyday Rapture

Photo: Carol Rosegg

When I initially wrote this, before the reviews came out, I began with "for huge Sherie Rene Scott fans, this one-woman-ish show is a treat." But it turns out that Everyday Rapture is a treat for pretty much everyone but me. Perhaps it's because I saw a preview, and maybe it's improved a lot since then, but I thought the show was uneven and preachy. Everyday Rapture consists of a series of (autobiographical or faux autobiographical) stories, including a tribute to Mr. Rogers, told and sung by Scott with the assistance of her very likeable backup singers and a kick-ass band. The section in which she befriends a crazed fan from YouTube is the most successful part of the show, but it goes on too long. And the moral of the show--yes, it has a moral--is important and true but presented too much like a lecture.

Waiting For Godot

photo: Joan Marcus

It will always be a matter of taste and for debate: does Beckett's play mean nothing, or, everything? All can agree that two men wait, in vain, for another called Godot, passing the time in a bleak vaudeville. In this (Roundabout) production, the vaudeville is in fine form - how can it not be with the skilled clowning of Bill Irwin and Nathan Lane? - but the bleak is shortchanged: the production has no feeling of heft. John Goodman and John Glover do fine work in the supporting roles.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Waiting for Godot

Photo: Joan Marcus

From the moment the curtain rises, revealing the astonishingly beautiful set, this is a Godot well worth seeing. How Santo Loquasto manages to make an array of gray boulders both forbidding and gorgeous is beyond me, although I'm sure that Peter Kaczorowski's emotionally evocative lighting has more than a little to do with it. Bill Irwin, John Glover, and John Goodman are superb (and while I'm far from a Nathan Lane fan, I give him credit for tamping down his Nathan Lane-ness and actually playing Estragon.) Although I have seen four previous productions of Godot, I once again found the play surprising, funny, moving, bleak, true, absurd--and new. Exit the King strikes me as an extended skit; Godot strikes me as profound. (For the record, in this production, Estragon and Vladimir are waiting for God-doe, not Guh-doe.)

The Gingerbread House

photo: Carol Rosegg

The lights are barely up on the mod-austere set when a husband (played by Jason Butler Harner) suggests to his wife (played by Sarah Paulson) that they sell their two kids - don't they deserve to be happy and free from the parental duties that have stressed their once fun marriage? The heightened acting style (under Evan Cabnet's direction) and the severe set design prep us for an absurdism that Mark Schultz's play doesn't follow through on: eventually, we're asked to invest in the situation as if it was real rather than as the absurd allegory it first seemed to be about the selfishness in our culture. The acting is unified in style and tone, but Bobby Cannavale, as the outrageously slick baby deal broker, comes close to stealing the show.